Recently, the UK government has announced that it will be seriously looking into how to make academic research available online for free to all those who want it. In an early blog I mentioned about a few ways to go about finding scientific journals, and how only some of them were free, and even then it may only be the abstract available without payment. With this change in the pipeline it could mean an opportunity for the scientific community to stride forward with unhindered access to many hundreds, if not thousands, of research papers. This initiative has been dubbed the “Academic Spring” and aims to make the information currently kept behind paywalls to become more freely available to those who are interested in it.
There have been grumblings concerning the cost of journals for some time now, but it wasn’t until January this year that everything came to a head with the blog of a prominent Mathematician, Tim Gowers. He was frustrated at the fact that research that was largely publically funded was being held behind the paywalls of large publishing companies such as Elsevier, and so vowed to cease submitting and reviewing papers for them. This post evidently hit a nerve, and there have been over 400 comments in the past couple of months alone, discussing the situation and what can be done. Since this post was made, many other prominent researchers and institutions have followed suit, and so it seems that something is finally being done to make the flow of information a little more fair.
It’s not all good news, unfortunately, as the process at the moment is one whereby the research papers are published in peer reviewed journals, which firms charge access to. The peer review is a very necessary step for such scientific papers, as it ensures that the results and conclusions gleaned from the base research are scrutinised to make sure the findings are actually useful and correct. Without such review, the papers could potentially lose some reputability, but this has been considered and a couple of solutions brought forward already. One such solution is the “gold model” which has the funders of the research cover the cost of the peer reviews, while the “green model” allows the paper some closed time before it is released into the ether, during which it can attempt to raise the necessary money required.
The founder of the well known information sharing site, Wikipedia, has also joined the discussion, and has been asked by the government to help provide his insights into the situation. Jimmy Wales, if you weren’t aware, has overseen the exponential growth of Wikipedia until it is seen now as perhaps the largest and most prolific base of free information on the internet, and so his appointment into the taskforce should not be seen as that great a surprise.
Even the prestigious Harvard University has released a memo to its 2 100 teaching and research staff that outlines the growing problem faced by all academic insitutions across the planet, stating that the university faces an “untenable situation” with journal costs rising to nearly $4 million per year. When such a successful and long standing university is showing signs of being unable to cope, it is easy to see why many others are in the same, dire, situation. Not surprising when some journals cost around £15 000 per year!
Not everyone is happy with the idea, however, and fear that without the publishers around to regulate how the information is made available, we will lose out on the strong, reliable infrastructure that has been built up over the many years of standard, peer reviewed journals. At the moment, the government science minister has commissioned a report that will enable both sides to look objectively at the cost, the benefits and also the downfalls of such a move; and so it will only be a matter of time before we truly know which route will be taken.